Virginia begins issuing debit cards — bearing possible fees — for tax refunds

April 14, 2013

It’s national Tax Day on Monday, when many taxpayers turn their thoughts to the refund checks they’re expecting sometime in the next few weeks. But in Virginia this year, the state stopped issuing tax refund checks, instead sending the money to individual bank accounts via direct deposit or offering a debit card with the refund on it.

Yes, there’s a catch: As with all debit cards, there can be fees. Fees for cash withdrawals. Fees for balance inquiries. Fees for phone calls to ask how to make cash withdrawals or balance inquiries. A fee for not using the card. Sixteen different types of fees in all.

This has prompted some upset Virginians to ask: Why am I being charged a fee to collect my tax refund?

“It’s usury,” said Eileen Tribble, who lives in the Alexandria area. Tribble had trouble transferring money off of the card, then was docked $2, twice, for phone calls trying to resolve the problem. “At best it’s unethical. At worst, they’re stealing money.”

The cards are administered by Xerox, and Virginia tax officials say the program is saving the commonwealth about $200,000, the cost of printing and mailing tax refund checks every year. Xerox is not charging Virginia for the debit-card service, but the company is pocketing the fees.

Money from a refund debit card can be withdrawn all at once or deposited into a bank account, once, without incurring a fee, which is how the card is designed to be used. The card can also be used at retail outlets without charge. But withdrawing cash from an ATM with the card costs $2.50 each time if the ATM is not part of the Money Pass network and costs $2.50 per time after the first Money Pass ATM use.

The first two calls to Xerox to clear up problems with the card are free, but after that, it’s $2 per call. If the card is inactive for six months, there is a $3 per month inactivity fee.

Virginia tax returns gave taxpayers a choice for their refunds: direct deposit or debit card. Joel Davison, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Taxation, said the tax return’s filing instructions “devote nearly two pages to the new debit card, including the fee schedule.” Briefings and educational materials were sent to the public and Virginia legislators, Davison said, and the tax department’s Web page has many details.

Davison said 1.3 million people — more than 75 percent of all filers so far — have chosen direct deposit. About 300,000 have opted for the debit card. If filers do not select direct deposit on their return, they are automatically sent a debit card.

There have been some individual problems with cards, Davison said, but “we think overall it’s been a successful program. We’ve gotten fewer calls this year than last year, when there was no debit card.”

Abby Watson, who lives in the Alexandria area, said when her son came home from college for spring break, he was unable to extricate his $70 refund from the debit card.

After receiving the card, users must call to validate or authorize it, just as they must for a bank-issued credit or debit card. But Watson said the automated system has repeatedly refused to authorize the card. Watson said she has made several calls trying to fix the problem and wonders how much that will deduct from her son’s $70.

“It’s definitely a pain,” Watson said. “The paper checks were so much easier. You got it in the mail, you signed it and got it cashed.”

Jennifer Wasmer, a spokeswoman for Xerox, noted that some people don’t have bank accounts and had to pay high fees at a check-cashing store to get their money. With the debit card, “there are a number of ways they can access their funds for free.” The cards provide an alternative to carrying cash, and they are federally insured, Wasmer said.

Xerox’s Way2Go Card is used for various purposes by 25 states and the federal government, Wasmer said. She said the cards have been used more than 300,000 times for free transactions in Virginia.

“We’ve been really happy,” Davison said, “that there have not been more issues in a start-up year, with so many moving parts and a system that’s so complex.”

However, Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) said that it was “outrageous that taxpayers should have to pay somebody to get their refund back.”

“I have constituents who are calling up to try to remedy a problem and they get charged for it,” Surovell said. “The company is making enough money off the fees [paid by merchants] for use of the debit cards, and now they’re getting a dollar tip for someone making a phone call.”

Though Monday is the federal deadline, Virginia taxpayers have until May 1 to file their state returns.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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